Party Time: Kaya Celebrates 20 Years with Festival and Food

The Strip District's Latin/Caribbean restaurant marks the occasion with several shindigs, including the ever-popular Kaya Fest.

Photos courtesy Kaya


There was a time when our city’s food scene was very far from what it is now. I still remember my first move to Pittsburgh 15 years ago to go to grad school. Moving from the diverse flavors of New York City via the many cities of South East Asia, I experienced a withdrawal from rich flavors of the Silk Road. I love our local food with its Eastern European roots, but I also love the color and variety of curries, cardamom, turmeric and the many aromatics I grew up with. Flavors of Asia, the South, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. For the latter, big Burrito's Casbah restaurant was my salvation. Such beautifully simple — but really good — food.

And then I discovered Kaya. For the Pittsburgh of 15 years ago, Kaya was the envelope push that probably started it all. Flavors! Spices! Cocktails! (Before cocktails were a “thing.”) Music! Fun!

Kaya was the counterpoint to the grayness of the city. In more ways than one.

I went back to New York City after grad school, but I came back to Pittsburgh eight years ago, right at the cusp of it becoming a fast-changing city. I made a beeline back to Kaya — which I happily found to have only gotten better. I discovered then that Kaya was not only celebrating flavors but also something unusual: vegetables! Back when “farm-to-table” was not yet a “thing,” Kaya started offering vegetable-centric dinners. Again, one of the firsts in the city.

Next week, Kaya celebrates 20 years. “You’ve come a long way, baby” is an understatement when it comes to our city, but Kaya has always held true from the beginning.

On the 20th, Executive Chef Ben Sloan (Kaya’s longest-tenured chef) will offer a fantastic vegetable-lovin’ four-course prix-fixe dinner that features of-the-season ramps and includes the infamous asparagus cemita and pea arancini with cashew cream, arugula, ramp pesto, charred cherry tomatoes (featured here with a recipe below!).

Then KayaFest is on Sunday, May 24, and revelers will take over that stretch of Smallman Street from 3 p.m. until who knows what time.

Join me next week in celebrating one of the places that started it all!

In the meantime, try your hand at these pea arancini (I know I am!). It’s quite the recipe with many layers, but Brazen Kitchen readers are no stranger to cashew cream (whew!). PLUS you can substitute your favorite pesto for ease. Folks, this will be your showstopper recipe for your spring and summer parties.


Kaya’s Pea Arancini

For Kaya’s take on this traditional Italian dish, we use a creamy vegan “risotto” as our base, coupled with bright spring vegetables for a unique, savory small plate. Please note that some prep needs to be done the night before for best results.
– Ben Sloan, Executive Chef at Kaya


For the arancini:

  • 1/4 white onion, diced
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 1 ounce extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1-3 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 1/2 cup pea purée (below)
  • 1/2 cup cashew cream (below)
  • salt and pepper
  • 4-6 cups panko bread crumbs
  • oil for frying


For the pea purée:

  • 1 1/2 cups English peas
  • water as needed
  • salt and pepper
  • zest of 1 lemon


For the cashew cream:

  • 1 cup roasted, unsalted cashews
  • 1 cup soy milk (with extra for adjusting)
  • salt and pepper


For the ramp pesto:

  • 10 ramps (green leaves only)
  • 20 basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • pinch of red crushed chili flakes
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil


To make the arancini:

  1. Clean and dry two sheet trays.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add white onions and sauté until translucent.
  3. Add Arborio rice, stirring constantly to coat evenly.
  4. Once the rice is warm and starting to absorb the liquid, deglaze the pan by adding the white wine, dissolving the residue from the onions and thinning the oil. Continue stirring the rice until the wine is almost entirely absorbed.
  5. Add 1 cup of the vegetable stock and stir to absorb. Add another cup after first is fully absorbed.
  6. Taste the rice to make sure it is tender. If it’s still crunchy, add another cup of vegetable stock.
  7. Stir in pea purée and cashew cream (recipes below).
  8. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Once finished (where rice is tender but not chewy), spread onto a sheet tray and cool in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
  10. Once completely cooled, use a 1 ounce cookie scoop to shape into balls. Place the balls onto second sheet tray and place back into refrigerator until ready to use.
  11. Heat frying oil to 350 degrees.
  12. Roll the rice balls in a bowl of panko breadcrumbs to coat, and fry until golden brown.
  13. Drain on paper towels and toss with salt and pepper to season. Serve with ramp pesto (recipe below), roasted cherry tomatoes, sautéed ramps and arugula.


To make the ramp pesto:

  1. Blanch basil and ramps in lightly salted, boiling water for 10 seconds.
  2. “Shock” the leaves by removing them from boiling water and immediately dunking in ice water to chill. Once the leaves are cooled, drain on paper towels to remove the excess water.
  3. Purée in blender with pine nuts, chili flakes, and olive oil until smooth.
  4. Adjust taste by seasoning with salt and pepper.


To make the pea purée:

  1. Blanch peas in lightly salted, boiling water until tender.
  2. “Shock” the peas by removing them from boiling water and immediately dunking in ice water to chill. Once cooled, drain on paper towels to remove the excess water.
  3. Put drained peas in a blender and add just enough water to cover them.
  4. Add lemon zest and purée until smooth.
  5. Adjust taste by seasoning with salt and pepper.


To make the cashew cream:

  1. Soak the cashews overnight in soy milk.
  2. The next day, place into a blender and purée until smooth.
  3. Adjust purée with extra soy milk, puréeing until it has the consistency of pudding.
  4. Adjust taste by seasoning with salt and pepper.


Categories: Brazen Kitchen